24 July 2024

The Silk Road Revisited

Samarkand Uzbekistan Bibi Xanom Mosque Building

I started to get itchy feet again a few months ago so my mind started thinking about where I might go next. I thought I might go back to Asia and continue my Silk Road trip. The one I had to cancel because I fractured my foot. I thought about it for a while and said, feck it, I’m done with Asia, its too much like hard work. I want somewhere safe where I know the language. America was the obvious choice. I scoured the Lonely Guide books for Canada and the US and decided on a route.

I wanted to travel as much as possible by train. Not because I’m a train nut because train is by far the most leisurely way to travel long journeys and see see as much as possible of the landscape. I would fly into NYC, catch a train to Boston and then a ferry from somewhere in Vermont to Nova Scotia in Canada to connect with the Canadian railway network where I would slowly wind my way across Canada to connect up with the Alaska Marine Highway System. I would then scoot up and down the coast of Alaska and the main cities taking in whales and icebergs and maybe a few bears. My next leg would take me down the Pacific coast to San Francisco and then Los Angeles to see a friend. My next increment would be across the US on the Californian Zephyr train to Chicago, then to NYC and return to Ireland. I was looking at 8-10 weeks and had already started booking hostels on Booking.com, all 100% refundable in case I changed my travel dates.

I had my itinerary all worked out and sat back and waited for the glow of excitement I usually get when contemplating a long trip. But I wasn’t feeling the love, not a bit of it. Just a sense of wooden duty. Wait a bit, I thought to myself, it’ll come. But it didn’t. Jaysus. Go through the motions, I thought, fake it to make it; that usually works. So, I applied for the ESTA (Electronic System for Travel Authorization) thingy. I’m Irish, shouldn’t be a problem, I thought. But there was a problem. My application was flagged for further investigation for a day or so. Oh, oh, I thought to myself, what could that be. I guessed it might be because I had an Iranian visa in my passport and have visited several Islamic countries, including Iran, in the past. However, my application was approved a day later and I was issued with my ESTA. I looked at the confirmation email and waited for the love. And waited. Nope, not a glimmer.

I thought about why this should be and an image formed in my mind; a terrible orange shape. What could it be? Eventually, the shape of the dreaded Trumpapillar appeared. Ah ha, so that’s it.

The experience of the heavy hand of the police state when I applied for ESTA and the thought of all the dysfunction in the US today outweighed all the many good things there are in that amazing continent. I thought I’d wait until he’s safely behind bars; something that seems increasingly likely to happen sooner rather than later. Maybe next year.

Around that time, I saw something on YouTube about a building in some Islamic country and began to think again about my planned trip last year to follow The Silk Road. And then I felt the love. Done deal, decision made, back to Asia it is and no grumbling there in the back row.

I looked at my old plan and revamped it a bit as I wouldn’t be travelling across N China to Urumqi and entering Kazakhstan to Almaty. Instead I decided to fly to Moscow, as you do. Spend a day or so in that amazing vibrant city and then spend a few days in St Petersburg. I didn’t make it there last year because of a huge blister on my heel. I wanted to spend a few days strolling around the Hermitage Museum.

Then a 54 hr train journey to Astana in N Kazakhstan where the journey really starts. The train leaves Moscow at 10pm and arrives in Astana at 8am on the morning of the 3rd day. Train journeys in Russia aren’t as cheap as they were a few years ago but reasonable enough from an Irish perspective. Bearing in mind that the ticket includes 2 nights in a sleeper compartment. The fare is 115€ 3rd class and 160€ for 2nd class. My train has no 1st class.

Long-distance trains within Russia and the former Soviet republics have three main classes, all designed for both daytime and overnight travel given the distances covered by many trains:

Spalny Vagon (1st class) are 2-berth compartments, 9 compartments per coach, with both beds at the lower level either side of the compartment.  Washrooms and toilets are at the end of the corridor. It’s twice the price of travelling kupé, although you get twice the space per passenger, so it’s recommended for those who want extra privacy and space and who can afford it.  SV is also known as ‘myagky’ or ‘lyux’. On the best ‘firmeny’ trains you can often buy tickets with or without ‘service’, meaning with or without bedding and meals included.

In addition to the normal 2-berth sleepers, the best Moscow-St Petersburg overnight train (the ‘Krasnaya Strela or ‘Red Arrow’) also has two deluxe sleeping-cars with 1 & 2 bed compartments with private toilet and shower and TV / DVD entertainment system.  These deluxe sleepers were introduced in 2004.

Kupé (2nd class) are 4-berth compartments with 9 compartments per coach. Washrooms and toilets are at the end of the corridor. Kupé is recommended as the class chosen by most visitors to Russia and is how I generally travel. On the best ‘firmeny’ trains you can often buy kupé tickets with or without ‘service’, meaning with or without bedding and meals included. I generally go for ‘services’ as it only costs a bit more.

Platskartny (3rd class) are open-plan dormitory cars. There are 54 bunks per coach, arranged in bays of 4 on one side of the aisle and bays of 2 along the coach wall on the other side of the aisle. Recommended for the most budget-conscious and adventurous visitors. I only used one once and found it a bit overwhelming. The smell of feet won the battle of the nose against the vodka fumes. Never again unless I have to.

Strictly-speaking, you’ll also find basic seats on some long distance trains and on local or suburban trains, known as ‘Obshchi’, but this isn’t intended for long-distance travel and is not recommended.  There are now a number of daytime expresses between cities such as Moscow and St Petersburg, and these have comfortable airline-style seating in ordinary and ‘business’ classes rather than the sleeper-based classes described above. I’ll travel to St Petersburg on one of these.

Thus endeth the lesson on Russian trains.

I’ll spend a few days in Astana taking in the sights. I’ll be staying in this hostel because it’s very cheap, only 4€ a night, but, just as important, it a chance to meet people who are the road like me and exchange travel tips and hints. I don’t take the 4€ room. Instead, I upgrade to sharing a room with just one other person for 8€ a night. At this time of year, its odds on I won’t have to share at all, although I don’t mind if I do.

As the fracture in my foot hasn’t healed properly, my mobility will be a bit limited. I will have to change a few things. First thing to change will be my backpack.

I have an Osprey Farpoint 75 backpack. I bought it here in Dublin a few years ago before my trip to Hong Kong. I researched all the available medium size travel packs and this one stood out. It really is an intelligent design (note the use of lowercase here, in case you’re wondering). Its creators really thought about the function of a travel backpack and designed an excellent product. I used it a few times travelling around Europe, Russia and China and although I was packing more stuff than I needed, it was quite manageable. I often saw people struggling with cheaper and badly designed packs and was glad that I spent the extra money in getting this one. A huge bonus was the detachable backpack. I could leave the pack locked away at a train station or hotel and have my valuables in the daypack. It too is very well designed and perfect for what I needed it for. It’s also possible to clip it to the front of the pack so it hangs down in front of my chest. This is useful to help distribute and balance out weight if the pack is heavy. All in all, it was a very good purchase and helped eliminate a lot of stress and made my journey a lot more gentle on the amygdala.

However, I cannot use it on this trip as the weight on my back will wreck my already damaged foot. This provided me with the opportunity of exploring the possibility of travelling for the whole 10 weeks with only one single carry on backpack. I spent a week and a half travelling around France the UK and Holland recently and had a standard carry-on cabin bag, one I use when I’m travelling inside the EU. I noticed, when I came home, that I had used only half of the clothes I had brought with me. This made me think that if I was pretty ruthless about my packing I could manage to get everything in one bag. So  being a modern type of a guy, I went online and checked out what was available. I came across this bag which has an overall capacity of 60 litres consisting of a 44 litre main pack and a 16 litre detachable daypack. The bag is on wheels and also can be used as a backpack. Best of both worlds. The only main issue is that it cost over 200€ to buy new. That’s a lot of money but if I sold my existing pack I will get at least 100€ for that so the total cost would be around the 100€ so I could definitely swallow that. I have no choice though. My trip depends on managing my current problem with my foot and this bag would be perfect.

Because of the political uncertainty in Russia, Iran and Turkey at the moment, I haven’t completed my travel plans yet. I have a draft plan to cover my journey from Dublin back home to Dublin again 10 weeks later, if everything goes ok. I am now researching alternative journeys if things should kick off in Russia or in the middle East. For example,  it was very easy to get an Iranian visa last year, although visas were not being issued to people who held UK, United States or French passport. This ban might be extended to the rest of the EU. If this happens, I will need to compile a different itinerary. But that’s not a problem really. The Silk Road is a very ancient route and over the centuries has shifted to follow the geopolitical or environmental issues current at that time. So, I will do the same. But it’s really important that I cover all possibilities.

Therefore, I’ll end here until this is completed.

More again in a week or so when I’ve have an itinerary from Astara onwards.

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